HOUSTON (CN) - A federal judge Wednesday denied bond to an Iraqi refugee after hearing testimony that he plotted to plant bombs at two Houston malls and blow up Humvees at a Texas military base.
Omar Faraj Saeed al Hardan, 24, a Palestinian born in Iraq, entered the United States as a refugee in 2009 and became a permanent resident in 2011.
Department of Homeland Security agent Herman Wittliff testified that federal agents began tracking al Hardan in April 2014 as part of their investigation of Aws Mohammed Younis al-Jayab, 23, a Sacramento man who was arrested the same day as al Hardan, and who had traveled to Syria and fought alongside terrorists aligned with the Islamic State.
Wittliff, a large bald white man with a full black beard, told the court he's on an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Wittliff testified that FBI agents discovered that Al-Jayab and al Hardan carried on a correspondence over Facebook Messenger from April 2013 to October 2014.
The men said they both planned to travel to the Middle East to join ISIL, and al Hardan said he would go once he got a U.S. passport, Wittliff testified before 40 people in the standing-room only courtroom.
According to Wittliff, the FBI then turned to a method it's used to catch dozens of other aspiring jihadis in the United States: a confidential informant.
Wittliff testified that the informant met with al Hardan in June 2014, the first of 17 meetings they had.
Al Hardan told the informant he wanted to go onto a military base in Grand Prairie, Texas, and "use gasoline to set fire to and blow up Humvees," Wittliff testified.
Al Hardan also told the informant he wanted to plant bombs at two malls in Houston: the bustling Galleria off Westheimer Road and Sharpstown Mall, Wittliff said.
"He wanted to plan how to enter the facilities without being observed, how he would take in a fully assembled device, how he would hide the device, specifically in a trash can, in the same way it was done with the Boston Marathon bombings, then he would leave and detonate that device remotely with a cellphone," Wittliff testified.
The short and stocky al Hardan, wearing an olive green jumpsuit and light beard, cocked his head and peered intently at Wittliff on the stand, not wearing the glasses he had on at his first court appearance last week.
The chilling testimony contrasted with al Hardan's unassuming mannerisms at the hearing. During a break in testimony, al Hardan scratched his heard, rubbed his eyes, yawned and looked at people in the gallery, while three U.S. marshals stood chatting in a semicircle behind him.
Al Hardan appeared relaxed, perhaps not fully grasping the gravity of the charges he's facing.
A three-count indictment charges him with attempting to join ISIL, lying on his U.S. citizenship application about his ties to terrorist groups, and not disclosing during an interview with an immigration official that he'd been trained how to shoot a machine gun
If convicted on all counts, he faces a maximum of 53 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
He pleaded not guilty to all charges at Wednesday's hearing.
Al Hardan's youth and seeming innocence was underscored by a bizarre home video FBI agents found on his computer.
"The first video shows a model car that the defendant and other participants loaded with fireworks," Wittliff testified.
"He narrated that this was a car bomb being used in an Iraqi city," Witliff said. "They then lit that firecracker, exploded the car and began cheering and chanted Allahu Akbar."
Jihadis often use this Arabic phrase for "God is great" after they commit acts of violence, the agent added.
Wittliff said al Hardan's father was with him and they blew up the car and a model airplane in their apartment.
Wittliff said the FBI made more ominous discoveries in al Hardan's apartment that the refugee shared with his wife, young son and parents.
He said agents found electronic circuitry components and tools needed to assemble them: a soldering iron, antistatic tweezers, an ISIL flag, camouflage clothing and a "prayer to-do list, and on that list he spoke about receiving strength, being able to commit jihad and becoming a martyr."
Al Hardan told the informant he was watching online videos to learn how to build improvised explosive devices, Wittliff said, which the FBI corroborated with a search of his computer.
"Who did the defendant say he wanted to build the explosives for?" prosecutor Ralph Imperato asked.
"He wanted to build them for ISIL," Wittliff replied. "He wanted to kill people."
The FBI intercepted a conversation between al Hardan and his mother and wife in October 2014 after he applied for U.S. citizenship, which he did so he could get a passport to travel to Syria, Wittliff added.
"Once I get the passport I will leave America" Wittliff said, reading a transcript to the court. "I will leave. I will make a widow of you, mark my words. ... I'm not wacko. I'm speaking the truth I will travel to Syria when I get the passport. Iraq or Syria. OK?
"I want to blow myself up. I want to travel with the mujahideen. I want to travel to be with those who are against America. I am against America."
Wittliff was the only witness to testify. On cross-examination, al Hardan's court-appointed attorney David Adler pointed out that al Hardan didn't say he wanted to bomb America in the excerpt Wittliff read; he just said, "I'm against America."
Adler said there is "nothing inherently illegal about the electronic components" that agents found in al Hardan's apartment, which can be bought at Radio Shack.
"In fact, they're used every day for a wide variety of nonviolent, nonlethal things, such as garage openers," he said. "Is it fair to say there's probably dozens of items that use electronic components in everybody's house?"
"Yes," the agent replied.
Adler also questioned Wittliff's testimony about al Hardan and others blowing up a model car.
"Did it do any damage to his apartment?" Adler asked.
"Not that I can tell."
"How many other people were there when he blew up the car?"
"I'm not certain, but more than two."
"Did the FBI identify these other model car bombers?"
"Only one, his father."
"So somewhere out there on the loose is a model car bomber with firecrackers," Adler said, prompting a mild, "Mr. Adler" rebuke from U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes.
Hughes denied al Hardan bond. His trial is set for March 15.Follow @@cam_langford
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.